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Chuck D visits Grand Rapids, speaks out on education, individual responsibility

While visiting both GRCC and GVSU this weekend surrounding the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, he sat down with The Rapidian about Dr. King, ArtPrize, the cost of education and the N-word.

Chuck D, the co-founder of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rap group Public Enemy, was the keynote speaker for GRCC’s MLK Day commemoration this past Monday. The critically acclaimed rapper, who is also an author, activist, publisher, radio host and producer, used the podium to speak about the importance of education, the dangers of consumerist mentality and the legacy of Dr. King. Afterward he expressed concern that his speech might fall on deaf ears. 

“You hope society changes,” he says. “Then you won’t have to sound like you have all these great ideas that make people think about what they’ve already been thinking about. That’s what’s troubling for me: common sense is no longer common. It’s common nonsense. Nonsense is common. And we’ve accepted it as part of the norm. It’s troubling because it’s seeped so much into the cultural and social norms and even penetrates the political realm. When you look at news, it’s like, ‘What is this? This ain’t news.’”

In his keynote speech, Chuck D praised Grand Rapids as “a great city.” Afterwards he said that he decided to speak at GRCC to encourage the city’s youth to understand the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I come from radical times, but I’m pretty sure there’s a difference speaking on Dr. King Day in 2014 as opposed to speaking on Dr. King Day in 1995,” he says. “[Back then they said] ‘Oh man, he’s a rapper, he’s too radical to have come, because he’s about ‘I have a Dream’ and ‘turn the other cheek’ and peace.’ So things have changed over time. And I came to tell younger people, ‘Look, he wasn’t just a dream, he wasn’t an illusion, he wasn’t a ghost, he was a real person.’ We have a holiday because this person marched and stood for justice. Young people need to understand the magnitude of what he did by all that.”

Chuck D advocates the example of peaceful protest by King as the means for social change. 

“Are you going to wake the masses so they recognize that it’s all wrong, so they riot and protest? I think what truly wakens the masses is education," he says. "You educate the masses, and the educated masses make demands politically, socially and culturally. [And] education, insurance and health care have to be affordable. When it’s not, you’re leaving people to get trapped by one of two complexes: the prison industrial complex or the military industrial complex. A kid that’s in Saginaw and has no way out in life, if he’s not in jail he’ll go into the military to keep out of trouble. That kid needs human intervention. Human intervention is very important.”

Chuck D intervened in the public eye last year when a white fan yelled the N-word at one of his shows, and he continues to speak against the improper usage of the racial epithet.

“I was in France and Jay-Z and Kanye had released 'N***** in Paris.' And this guy uses it and he didn’t really know he was doing anything wrong. You know, I had to make a point: ‘We aren’t ‘N***** in Paris.’ Black people aren’t ‘N***** in Paris.’”

“[The N-word] is prevalent all over America and the world because Jay-Z and Kanye West are some of your favorite artists. It’s a word that’s gone AWOL out of context. When you take away a people’s history, everything goes. The word is embedded in black history. You love hip-hop? You love rap music? If you do, do you love black people? You say, What’s that got to do with it? But the music comes out of black people, just like blues and jazz comes out of black people from New Orleans. You’ve got to respect the legacy of the people that it comes from in order to love the art form. You can’t just respect the byproduct. The N-word is embedded into our history because it’s beaten into us, and I think that when somebody says ‘The term’s meaning has changed’ that it’s shortsighted. I say, 'Who changed the term’s meaning?' Pretty soon you see that everyone has been talking to ghosts. Every time that word is used out of context it’s slapping Rosa Parks on her knees.”

Chuck D has also been a spokesperson for Americans for the Arts Council, and he believes art competitions like ArtPrize are positively influencing the appreciation of the arts.

“It’s a start. It’s a start versus nothing. You have to begin somewhere," he says. "The world of opportunity in the art world is disconnected, and I’d like to see it connected as much as sports: more people are into the arts than there are people into sports, or just as many.” 

Chuck D’s final remarks accentuated the focus of his speech: individual responsibility in developing intellectual ability. 

“Pay attention. It’s the cheapest price to pay," he says. "And work harder on designing your insides than you think it takes to dress your outsides.” 

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